Richard Liu won’t face sexual assault charges in the United States, but the tech billionaire is having to contend with a renewed bout of public scrutiny at home in China.
Liu’s case has gripped China, where billionaire company founders often enjoy celebrity status. Social media users have been sounding off in large numbers about the prosecutors’ announcement and Liu’s response.
The business leader, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, said in a statement that the prosecutors’ decision “proves I broke no law.” He went on to apologize for his “interactions” with the young woman who accused him of rape, saying his actions had hurt his family and his wife.
Many users said that while Liu, 45, may not have been charged, he still deserves censure for cheating on his wife, Zhang Zetian.
“Liu Qiangdong is not guilty, that is the legal judgment. But there is morality behind the law. As a public figure, he should have higher requirements for his words and deeds,” said a widely shared post by China Women’s News, the news outlet of a women’s rights organization backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Zhang, 25, is a popular figure in China. Before she met Liu, she gained internet fame when a picture of her holding a cup of milk tea went viral, earning her the nickname “Sister Milk Tea.” Zhang could not be reached for comment.
Fellow tech entrepreneur calls actions ‘harmless’
People argued on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform, over what the outcome of the months-long investigation by police and prosecutors meant for Liu.
Some users suggested his reputation has been irreparably damaged. But there were others who defended him, including one fellow tech entrepreneur.
“It wasn’t sexual assault, just extramarital sex, harmless to shareholders and employees,” wrote Li Guoqing, a co-founder of online book seller Dangdang.com.
“It wasn’t an extramarital affair, just sex, low impact to his wife,” he added in a post that drew criticism from other users.
Dangdang quickly distanced itself from Li’s comments, posting a statement on its official Weibo account saying that he plays no meaningful role in the company’s management. Dangdang was acquired by a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate HNA in April.
Liu said in his statement that he feels “deep regret and remorse” and that he hopes his wife “can accept my sincere apology.”
“I will continue to try in every possible way to repair the impact on my family and to fulfill my responsibility as a husband,” he added.
Battered JD shares rebound
The allegations against Liu have weighed on his company’s share price for months.
JD.com’s Nasdaq-listed stock closed up about 6% on Friday after prosecutors declined to press charges, but it’s still down more than 30% since his arrest. Like many other Chinese stocks, it has come under pressure from concerns about the country’s economic slowdown and trade war with the United States.
Liu’s case was particularly significant for JD because of the power he wields as its founder. He holds a large majority of the company’s voting rights, giving him control over key decisions.
The CEO was in Minneapolis in August because he was enrolled in a doctorate program in business administration at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. His accuser, a Chinese woman, was studying at the university.
The Minnesota prosecutors said they found “profound evidentiary problems” that would have made it hard to build a criminal case against Liu.
The Chinese executive maintains that the sex with the young woman was consensual. The student, who was 21 years old at the time of the alleged assault, said Liu raped her at her off-campus apartment after a group dinner. Liu was arrested the same night, but police let him go the following day without charging him or asking for bail.
He quickly returned to China after his release, where millions of Weibo users were sharing the police mugshot of him dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit.
The young woman’s lawyer said she plans to pursue a civil lawsuit against Liu.